Although the artist was not an active participant himself, the popular pastime of equestrian sports fascinated Degas and featured prominently in his work throughout his career. The subject of horses and riders offered the artist a challenge both as a documentarist of modern life and as a technician of visual imagery. Here, Degas depicts the jockeys riding their horses out to the track in preparation for the race. The attitude and movement of each horse seems to respond and flow into another – from the long curved neck of one animal with its head hung down, to the upright stance of another with its ears pricked forward. Each jockey’s pose on his mount is similarly in contrast and harmony with the other. While the whole is a superb study in graceful rhythms of the riders and their mounts as set against the distant horizon line and the diagonal rush of tree trunks, the composition also draws inspiration from Degas’ lifelong study of the works of Antiquity and the Old Masters. Early in his career, the artist frequently sketched copies after great works of the past, and his early studies of the friezes of the Parthenon as well as heroic paintings of equestrian processions from the Renaissance era, specifically influenced the compositions of these long, horizontal canvases. Degas was fascinated with the ritual, repeated gestures and physical performance of the horses and riders, just as he was with dancers, and each subject served as a framework for his endless formal inventions and historical quotations.
John Rewald wrote on this work as follows: “The actual subject of this painting is not horse racing; Degas only occasionally depicted the action of a race or the picturesque activities and people associated with them. Unlike de Dreux and Gericault, both reportedly fine equestrians, Degas probably could not ride… (and) had no taste for their energetic and romantic portrayals. The main reason that Degas repeated these representations of horses is identical to that for his other recurring subjects: he wanted to express in pictorial terms the shapes and motions of bodies engaged in the performance of habitual activity" (J. Rewald, The John Hay Whitney Collection, 1983, p. 40).
The horizontal format of this frieze-like composition had more often been used for studies of dance classes. Jean Sutherland Boggs has observed that with regard to the frieze compositions of the Dance and their application to the equestrian subjects, “it was natural that Degas should think of horses and riders, particularly as he was becoming more immersed in the mysteries of landscape and natural light” (Degas at the Races, Op.cit., p. 155). In a discussion of the present work and the two directly related oils in the collections of the Clark Art Institute and The Walters Art Gallery respectively, Boggs goes on to comment that “For [this] the third version of the subject he used a panel somewhat wider than the other two and obviously relished the space it gave him on both sides of the group of riders. He emphasized this further by adding the tiny figure of a horse and rider in the distance at the right as the apex of the wedge of horses and jockeys in motion…. In the other two panels the suggestion of a landscape background is rather minimal except for the roughness of the turf and, in the Clark’s painting, the pink on the hillock in the background. In the Whitney painting [the present work], on the other hand, the ground changes color, and there are trees of different sizes and configurations on the horizon. Around and behind these trees are a few hints, a smokestack or roofs, of human habitation” (ibid, p. 128).
The version in the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute was sold in 1882 and very likely painted the same year. The example in the Walters Art Gallery appears on stylistic grounds to have been painted in the late 1880s. In 1888, Theo van Gogh acquired the present work for his gallery (a branch of Goupil-Boussod et Valadon), but it could have been painted as early as 1882. He sold it the next year to the distinguished publisher Paul Gallimard in whose collection it remained until the late 1920s. It was with Reid & Lefevre in 1927, and the following year M. Knoedler and Co., New York, sold it to Mr. John Hay Whitney. Of course the acquisition was a reflection of a deep and abiding interest in thoroughbreds and horse racing. Eventually Whitney’s collection included outstanding equestrian subjects by Géricault, de Dreux, Degas, Manet and Munnings. In addition, the Whitney family's Greentree stable produced many of the greatest horses in American racing history. When Mrs. Whitney passed away in 1998, she instructed that the remaining works in their collection (the majority were donated to The Museum of Modern Art, New York, The National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. and the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven) should be used to finance the philanthropic works of the Greentree Foundation; the present work was sold with a group of property from the Foundation at Sotheby’s, New York in May, 2004, a sale that included Pablo Picasso’s iconic Garçon à la Pipe, which was the first work to break $100 million at auction.
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